Playing on the most primal of fears is a time-honored horror tradition. And Gore Verbinski’s A CURE FOR WELLNESS does just that. And then continues to do so for an unwarranted running time of around two-and-a-half hours. This hodge-podge of dental torture, putative madness, and a very clumsy use of eels as metaphor wears out its welcome well before the final credits roll, skittering towards an ending that is painfully obvious and even more painfully trite.
Verbinski has a penchant for the grotesque, and in his best work, including RANGO and one or two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, he married that penchant to a delightfully giddy sense of the absurd. Even the lesser works indulge in just that. In CURE, he has given us all the trappings of the Grand Guignol, presented with his trademark visual flair, but with none of the impish delight. It is one uncomfortable moment after another for no better purpose than to make us cringe. And we do.
In other words, this is not for the squeamish. Nor is it for anyone seeking something cathartic in exchange for all the ickiness.
Dean DeHaan stands in for Verbinski’s muse, Johnny Depp. He plays Lockhart, the rising star at a large financial institution in the process of merging into an even larger one. There are a few snags, though, including financial irregularities by Lockhart himself, and the CEO (Harry Groener) of the institution having absented himself at a posh and remote spa in the Swiss Alps. Sent to retrieve him, Lockhart discovers a distinct creep factor to the efficiently pristine establishment, starting with the eerily cheerful smiles from the staff, and the authoritarian undertones to Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the head doctor dispensing the water cure for which the spa is famous. There’s even something creepy about Hannah (Mia Goth), the ethereal young lady in a sweet blue dress who spends her days humming as she balances barefoot on the edges of parapets and fountains. Though all but somnambulant, or maybe because all the other patients are in their dotage, Lockhart is charmed by her. Or maybe he just needs her to bicycle into the local village after the car accident, which slowly killed a deer and broke his leg, prevents him from completing his mission. Plus, it’s a chance for the childlike Hannah to be menaced by the local toughs, and for us to watch a cow being dispatched in detail.
Like I said, not for the squeamish.
Of course, there is something nefarious going on at the spa, and it’s not just the tiny creature that Lockhart finds in his glass of water, or those balefully colored aspics on the dinner table. Of course, it’s psycho-sexual, but instead of suspense there is the spectacle of watching Lockhart catch up with what we in the audience have already figured out. Instead of tension, there are a series of unsettling images that none of us will ever be able to unsee (a refrain that echoes through the script), and instead of a tantalizing enigma, it is stubbornly obtuse in its flourishes of peculiar tableaux. It doesn’t help that DeHaan is forced to hop through most of the film with a cast on his leg (a hackneyed reference to impotence?), or that the story calls for his pallor to become progressively grayer, and his eyes to sink ever deeper into their sockets. He infuses as much energy as he can into playing what is essentially a dolt, and his silent screams of horror as Lockhart is being force-fed eels is certainly memorable. It’s just not enough. As for Goth, she barely registers, even when those ubiquitous eels enter her storyline.
A CURE FOR WELLNESS aspires to be a profound psychological study of the human condition. Instead it’s a flashy piece of art direction, a few slick camera angles, and the detailed death throes of ungulates.